Last December, a reader suggested that I make this short story an annual tradition. It’s an interlude that takes place “offstage” during Snake Face. book three in the Mae Martin series, while Mae is in northeastern North Carolina over the holidays.
Santa Claus Checks in at the Fat Buddha Spa
Mae Martin raced her twin stepdaughters to the pasture fence and almost let them win, making it a three-way tie. The llamas looked up from grazing on the dry winter grass, blinking their long lashes. Taking walks to visit the neighbors’ animals had been a favorite pastime for Mae and girls when she’d lived with them. Now, on her first holiday visit after separating from their father, she was trying to keep everything as normal as possible. As the six-year-old girls clambered onto the fence, Brook shouted. “That’s what I want for Christmas. A llama.”
“Are you sure?” Mae picked up a small purple glove from the weeds and put it in her pocket. The late December day was growing warm and both girls had taken off their gloves and hats. “I thought y’all wanted a tarantula.”
“We do, but Miss Jen is scared of spiders.”
Their father’s new girlfriend didn’t share Mae’s appreciation for crawly critters. “She might think a llama was cuter, but I don’t think anybody can afford one right now. You do know your presents come from family, right? Your daddy said y’all don’t believe in Santa anymore.”
“Yeah. We figured it out.” Stream perched on the top rail, swinging her legs. “We watched this TV show with Grampa Jim and Granma Sally about these people who have reindeer in some place near the North Pole.”
“Yeah. And those things are big. There’s no way they can fly.”
“What about magic?”
Brook sat beside her sister. They studied Mae as if they felt sorry for her. Poor mama. She’s not caught up with us yet. “Magic is for little kids who can’t figure things out. We’re gonna be bug scientists when we grow up—”
“Nun-uh.” Stream wriggled and sat straighter. “That’s your job. I’m gonna be a race car driver.”
Mae walked up and placed her hands on their knees. She loved their independence and eccentricity, but they could be tactless about how smart they were—like her ex-mother-law—and she needed to take that attitude down a notch. Gently. “Now what in the world is Santa Claus gonna do if all these kids don’t believe in him?”
Brook frowned, saying he couldn’t do anything if he wasn’t real, but Stream started to laugh. “He’ll pop like a bubble.”
Mae did her best to act serious. “Did you tell your friends there’s no Santa?”
The girls exchanged glances. Brook said, “We got in trouble for it at school. It made some kids cry.”
“It might be hard on ol’ Santa, too. Popping like a bubble. Before you tell any more kids he’s not real, I think I’d better give him a call and see how he’s feeling.” Mae took her cell phone from her jacket pocket and pretended to make a call. She rolled her eyes and sighed as if waiting a long time for an answer.
The girls poked each other and giggled. Stream whispered to her sister, “She can’t call him. She’s making believe.”
Mae raised her eyebrows, giving them the oh yeah? look, and then a triumphant smile as if she’d finally heard a voice. “Well hey, Santa buddy. What’s up? You know Summer Stream and Autumn Brook Ridley don’t believe in you anymore? … Oh. Of course. I can’t surprise you. You know who’s naughty and nice. “
Brook protested, “We weren’t naughty. We told the truth.”
“But did you tell it nice?” Mae turned away, lowering her voice to resume her conversation with Santa. “I hope they didn’t hurt your feelings. They told half the kids in Hertford County, North Carolina—You’re kidding! … So what are you doing now? … Really? Shut up! I live there. I just left for my vacation.” She put her hand over the phone. “You won’t believe it. He’s checked into a spa back in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. So many kids stopped believing in him, he’s taking this Christmas off.”
“What’s a spa?”
“It’s sort of like a motel with extra stuff. The ones where I live have hot springs and massages. People go there to relax and get healthy.” She got back to Santa Claus. “Which one? You at the Charles? La Paloma? … I never heard of that one. The Fat Buddha? … Oh. Reckon I wouldn’t see it.”
She explained to the girls, “He’s at a spa for supernatural beings. Regular folks can’t see it.”
Both girls frowned, and Brook asked, “A spa for what?”
“Supernatural beings. Kinda like ghosts or angels, but not exactly. It’s run by a big fat Buddha. You know who he is?”
Stream nodded. “Granma Sally has his statue on her desk. She says he helps her stay calm when she does taxes.”
“He’s helping Santa, too. And they’re hanging out with another fat supernatural, Ganesh. He’s this Hindu god with an elephant head.”
“An elephant head?” Stream whooped.
Brook asked, “How come they’re all fat?”
Mae repeated the question to Santa and listened while she worked on an answer.
“He says it’s because they’re supernatural. They don’t have to be in shape to be healthy. Ganesh …” She had to stop and think again. Her neighbors in T or C were into yoga and they had a Ganesh poster in their living room. Finding it strange but beautiful, she’d asked Kenny to explain it. “Ganesh is fat but he’s big and strong, too. People call him the remover of obstacles. Like an elephant can pull a fallen tree off a road but a human can’t.”
Stream looked skeptical. “Do people believe in the elephant-head guy? Like they believe in Santa?”
“Some do, but a lot of people just believe in what they all stand for. Like being generous and happy and enjoying life. Santa says they’re hanging out in the hot spring together and these other guys helped him with something he was worried about. So, you did him a favor, giving him a vacation, but he wants to go back to work next year, and he’ll need kids to believe in him again.”
“We can’t make them.”
“No—but you can keep it to yourselves if some new believers come along. You know why he wants to go back to work?”
Brook asked, “Does he get paid a lot?”
“No—he does it to be kind. And this is what those other fat dudes at the spa told him. He’s been too generous. See, they don’t get as carried away with their roles as he does. They help people by changing their lives, not giving stuff. He’s been giving people way too much expensive stuff, and they’re starting to think Christmas is about getting big, fancy gifts. So next year, he’s gonna cut back. Give stuff that means more and costs less.”
Mae took a deep breath and let it out. She hadn’t known she was going to say that. But as a college student with a part-time job and not much cash, she’d had to buy small gifts this year—child-sized team T-shirts for the College of the Rio Grande Tarantulas and a pair of stuffed toy versions of the mascot. She’d wanted to do more, but the trip east had cost all she could spare, and yet she didn’t want the girls to think she loved them less because she didn’t live with them anymore.
“Like when we make you presents,” Brook said.
“Exactly.” Mae smiled in relief.
“Good,” said Stream, “because we—”
Brook dug a fist into her sister’s arm. “Sh. You can’t tell her.”
“That’s right.” Mae put her phone in her jacket pocket. “Being surprised is part of the fun.”
The girls stared at her pocket. “Mama,” Brook said, “That was rude. You hung up on Santa without saying goodbye.”
“Oops. Look like I’ve been naughty, too. Good thing he’s taking the year off.”
Book one in the Mae Martin Series, The Calling, is on sale for 99 cents through the end of December.